FLUSHING, N.Y. (Sept. 14, 2018) – Gearing up for her first road trip with the Queens College women's soccer team of the 2018 season, senior midfielder Alma Mana'o took a bit of a different path to get prepared and in training shape for the rigors of the Division II schedule. In fact, Mana'o traveled over 7,000 miles to get to the pitches of Pago Pago; the player with the most appearances ever in an American Samoan uniform was attempting to lead her team to its first-ever World Cup appearance.
"My grandfather is American Samoan," said Mana'o, "so I was eligible to compete for the national team because he lives on the island."
Mana'o was not the only member of her family to be involved with the American Samoa Women's National Team that was attempting the milestone achievement. Her father was the head coach and she also played alongside two sisters and a cousin. But believe it or not, this was not the first experience Mana'o had competing on the international stage.
Alma Mana'o (far left) with several members of both her family and the American Samoa WNT.
"The first time I went (with the team) was in 2011 in New Caledonia for the Olympic qualifier. I was only 16 and we lost 7-0, 8-0, 9-0…it was hard because all the girls had no training or knowledge of the sport."
Seven years can change a great deal and Mana'o noticed wholesale changes as she trained with the team, which was comprised of college soccer players from the likes of Snow College and Everett Community College.
"We came back this time and recruited players from the States who have Samoan heritage and can play soccer. As long as they were able to move on a soccer field and they knew what a trap or a pass was, we were able to compete for the first time ever."
Despite the hope of progress, Mana'o said that the dreams of training stateside quickly went by the wayside. Plans to scrimmage the reserves of the National Women Soccer League's (NWSL) Seattle Reign were scrapped as were friendlies against the Seattle Sounders women's squad and the University of Washington women's team. Mana'o would have to journey from New York to Seattle, where her family lives, and then onto Honolulu before finally arriving in American Samoa.
However, the senior's first practice with the team reignited the hope and fire within her.
"I went to the first practice with a different expectation. When we lose a game, maybe the most goals scored against you is three. If it's 4-0, it's like no one is on the field. To lose my first game 8-0 in a national appearance, I was so angry and really ashamed. So to come back with the other players who were physically stronger, quicker and more technical, it was so much better than last time."
And what of having her father as the coach of the team? Mana'o stated that contrary to popular belief, her father did not take things easy on her.
"If I want to make the starting lineup, I have to be the best. For my dad to have three of his daughters on the team, we still worked really hard to compete at that level. When I'm in the States, he doesn't yell at me that much. But when I messed up in Samoa, he was chewing me out so much. He would call me out so quickly; but he was holding me to a standard that I couldn't do less than my best."
For American Samoa to make the World Cup, however, the squad would first have to qualify for the 2018 Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Women's Cup of Nations. Qualification took place in Lautoka, Fiji from Aug. 24-30 and included the host country, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu as well as American Samoa. The first match-up, against the Solomon Islands, saw an attendance of maybe 100 fans. The final game---versus Fiji---had 500 people in attendance.
American Samoa set for walk-out in the 2018 OFC Women's Nations Cup qualifying competition.
American Samoa did not win any of its matches, however progress was obvious. Gone were the 8-0 setbacks and the embarrassment; American Samoa's losses were by two goals or less in all three matches. However, there was a victory that came in the form of a competition with Samoa. The islands are literally next to each other and the rivalry, as Mana'o tells it, can pit families against families.
"We played an international friendly at Samoa, which is like 'El Clasico' because of the rivalry. Samoa is the bigger island and before they would always win 5-0 or something. We played two friendlies against them and this time we tied with them 1-1 and we lost the second one on a penalty that wasn't a foul."
Drawing with the rival is a step in the right direction for a team that has never won a match on the international stage. Mana'o, however, believes that soon that narrative will change.
"The goal was always to get to college, play college soccer and then play professional and for the national team. The fact that I was going through it at sixteen and now I have the most caps ever for the team, it meant a lot to me and it meant more because my whole family was there with me…I hope we can get some players from the island off of the island to improve their skills and get exposed to more soccer knowledge. This time was so much better all-around because we were able to stay focused and keep it fun."